Both President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles share a fondness for New England.
For President Eyring, who grew up in nearby New Jersey, the stone walls, dense forests, little lanes leading to colonial-era cottages, old red barns and stone bridges remind him of his childhood. “This feels like home to me.”
President Eyring and Elder Holland lived and served in the area as young men. President Eyring was attending Harvard when the Boston district president “took a chance” on the bachelor graduate student and called him to serve as his counselor. It was as he was serving that he met the woman who would later become his wife, Kathleen Johnson. “How grateful I am that God is watching over all of us,” President Eyring said.
Elder Holland was also called to serve in a stake in New England. As a young, new graduate student at Yale University, Elder Holland was called to be a counselor to Hugh West, the first president of the Hartford Connecticut Stake.
“That began the wonderful ecclesiastical education of Jeffrey Holland,” he recalled.
On the weekend of Nov. 20, both Church leaders returned to New England for the dedication of the Hartford Connecticut Temple — the first temple in Connecticut and the second in New England following the Boston Massachusetts Temple.
The dedication of a temple in Connecticut was something many doubted would ever happen in their lifetime.
“If you had asked when I was sitting in my little Volkswagen Bug driving around the hills of New England, ‘Would there ever be a temple in Boston or New Haven or Hartford?’ I would have said, ‘Oh, no,’ ” President Eyring said.
In many ways the temple stands as an acknowledgment of the sacrifice and faithfulness of generations of Latter-day Saints, beginning with Wilford Woodruff, who was born in Avon, Connecticut, — just four miles from the temple site — in 1807.
Honoring Wilford Woodruff
On Saturday, Nov. 19, prior to the dedication of the temple on Nov. 20, President Eyring, Elder Holland and other visiting Church leaders and their wives visited some of the historical sites associated with President Woodruff in the Hartford area. Included in the tour were some of President Woodruff’s boyhood haunts — the home of his maternal and paternal grandparents and several buildings designed and built by his great-uncle, Judah Woodruff, who was a master craftsman.
Earle Stone, a local historian and member of the Hartford Connecticut Stake, shared with the gathered Church leaders information about Wilford Woodruff’s progenitors, his formative years in Farmington, his education — both spiritual and secular — his conversion and baptism, and insights into who he was as a husband and father, and as a man.
Among other distinctions, Wilford Woodruff served 50 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as the fourth president of the Church. He was appointed Church Historian and incorporated the Genealogical Society of Utah, which would become the largest institute of family history research in the world.
Wilford Woodruff was also a great advocate for the completion of temples and dedicated the Manti and Salt Lake temples. He once wrote that the ordinances and blessings of the temple are “worth all you or I can sacrifice the few years we have to spend here in the flesh,” (Deseret Weekly, Oct. 22, 1892, 548).
“And he sacrificed plenty,” President Eyring noted. “He was one of the great missionaries in the history of the Church.”
Known as “Wilford the Faithful” during the time of Joseph Smith, he served six missions and baptized more than 1,800 people. In his later years he recorded that he had traveled some 172,000 miles. His journeys had taken him throughout the British Isles and to 23 states and five territories of the Union.
After serving one of his missions, President Woodruff returned to his home in Connecticut and was successful in converting his father and stepmother. Later, he ensured that the temple work was completed for his mother, who died of spotted fever when he was 15 months old. That alone justified all the sacrifices of his life, he later said.
During the tour of the historical sites, Church leaders visited the churchyard of the West Avon Congregational Church where Beulah Woodruff, President Woodruff’s mother, and Lot and Anna Thompson and Eldad and Dinah Woodruff, President Woodruff’s grandparents, are buried.
“I think it would mean a great deal to him to have a temple of God near his birthplace and family,” President Eyring said.
Generations of sacrifice
Praise for the newest temple in New England should include the whole continuum of faithful members, President Eyring said, from Wilford Woodruff to the thousands of missionaries who served throughout the area to the members who faithfully nurtured the fledgling Church units.
During the time that President Eyring and Elder Holland lived there, Church membership was much more sparse, with “branches so tiny they were like twigs,” Elder Holland said.
The Eastern States Mission was established in 1893 but by 1940 membership in Connecticut was less than 200, growing to only about 300 members by 1950. In 1937, the New England States Mission was organized with Carl F. Eyring, President Eyring’s uncle, serving as president. In the 1960s and ’70s, membership grew to more than 3,000, due in part to the proselytizing efforts of thousands of missionaries under the guiding influence of capable leaders such as Paul H. Dunn, Truman G. Madsen, John E. Carr, Boyd K. Packer and many others.
In addition, local members were strengthened by lifetime Church members from the western United States whose employment and educational pursuits brought them to the East.
“One little Latter-day Saint family would be the anchor for one little branch,” President Eyring recalled. “We ought to be grateful for the pioneers who really … built the Church through sacrifice over the years.”
When Elder Holland was serving there, the Hartford stake’s temple district was “a world away” in Manti, Utah.
“And now they have their own temple. Can you imagine our feelings now?” Elder Holland said of the Hartford dedication. “It’s a tender thing.”
When he thinks of the miracle of the gospel and the growth of the Church in New England, Elder Holland said he is reminded of Section 64 of the Doctrine and Covenants — “Out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”
“All these tiny branches and lone families and skimpy history. Then to come to this — it’s the promise of the work,” Elder Holland said. “It’s a marvelous work and a wonder when people couldn’t have dreamed that they’d have, not only one temple, but two or three in the area. Now we see that out of these tiny little beginnings ‘proceedeth that which is great.’ It’s a great reassurance that good things happen, that the Kingdom grows.”
President Eyring said missionaries through the years who knocked on doors all over New England in the cold and snow and found very few who were willing to listen might have wondered, “Was it worth it?”
President Eyring said he hopes those missionaries will now feel like Wilford Woodruff — that the blessing of a temple is worth every sacrifice.